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What motivates an attack on the homeless?

Published February 18, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG — Ira Gumm, a wispy old man with a trembling voice, was panhandling outside a liquor store last Sunday evening when a young man punched him.

The blow blackened the left half of Gumm’s wrinkled face, so it looks covered in soot. His left eye is completely red. When he blows his nose or sneezes, blood spills out.

But Gumm, 60, hasn’t reported the assault or sought medical help.

“I don’t see what the point is of telling anyone,” Gumm said. “It was just one of those young guys who like to beat up on people.”

The murders of two homeless men last month shocked the city and provoked outrage. But the shootings were not an anomaly. They were just the deadliest of a series of recent attacks on the homeless, a trend that experts say is growing.

Since Christmas, St. Petersburg police have documented at least eight violent attacks involving the homeless in the city, though none appear to be connected. Some involve fights between homeless people.

But it is difficult for authorities to establish motives for the attackers in other cases. Many of the assaults seem random.

For many homeless people, life on the street takes place to a daily soundtrack of violence. Teenagers and young men throw eggs at them, beat them with metal rods and lead pipes, steal their backpacks and cash. A few weeks ago, St. Petersburg police said, two men who looked like they were in their twenties cut a 51 year-old homeless man’s thumbs with a razor, apparently because he refused to give them money or cigarettes.

“A lot of the homeless are vulnerable,” said Sgt. Mike Kovacsev, the head of the department’s homicide’s unit, who recently assigned a detective to keep track of the attacks. “They are out there late at night, and there are opportunities for people to prey on them.”

Police say robbery may have been a motive in the slaying of one homeless man, but that it’s unclear why the second man killed that night was targeted. The suspects didn’t get any money, police said.

It is often difficult for police to catch those who attack the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Homeless people often don’t report crimes. And they move often, making it difficult for investigators to conduct follow up interviews.

Michael Stoops, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says the number of such attacks has been increasing in recent years. Last year, the coalition documented 86 violent attacks on the homeless in 2005, 32 of which took place in Florida. Stoops said he is planning to come to St. Petersburg this month to talk about crimes against the homeless.

“I think homeless people are the new minority group that people think is safe to pick on,” Stoops said. “Teenagers say, lets go and find a homeless person and teach him a lesson.”

Some of the attacks across the country were crimes of opportunity, Stoops said. Others were beatings done “for fun,” with the attackers capturing their beatings on videotape to post on web sites like YouTube. Stoops also criticizes the “Bumfights” video series, which depicts fights among the homeless and homeless men in pain. A web site for the video series calls the videos “satire.”

Eric Rubin, an advocate for the homeless, said fear played a role in the recent creation of “tent cities” in St. Petersburg. Many homeless people feel safer when they’re in groups, Rubin said.

Several recent attacks in St. Petersburg have police and the homeless worried:

- On Jan. 3, police came to the 3100 block of 37th Avenue N after a resident called to report that two homeless men sleeping at a train station were being beaten by four young men with metal rods and stick. Both homeless men were seriously injured and taken to Northside Hospital.

- A few weeks later, another homeless man was beaten by young people. J.W. James, 61, said two teenagers walked up and asked if he had anything to give. When James said he had nothing, one of them punched him in the face. One of the teenagers also threw a brick at James, police said.

- A week after that incident, a 36 year-old homeless man named Derrick Davis was attacked by three teenagers in the 1500 block of 22nd Street S. They punched Davis, kicked him, beat him with a folding chair, and threw rocks at him, police said. They only ran away after a woman who saw the attack began yelling.

“It’s all part of the same sick psychological phenomenon,” said Richard Shireman, an Operation PAR intervention specialist and member of the police department’s outreach team to the homeless.

Perhaps what is most striking about the attacks is the way that the beaten homeless people continue to go about life as normal. Charles Michael Dupuy. 40, remembers hanging out at a homeless camp near 34th Street and 38th Avenue N in January when someone came up to him and asked to use his cell phone.

“I let the guy use my phone and the next thing I knew there was a lead pipe right here,” Dupuy said, pointing to his head.

Several young men with lead pipes beat him so badly that they broke his collarbone. They took his phone and $150.

Dupuy was so dazed that he was still wandering around in blood-soaked clothes days after the attack. He didn’t even think of telling the police until an officer saw him and asked what had happened.

Times reporter Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at or (727) 893-8472.

[Last modified February 18, 2007, 21:29:32]

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